You might find yourself unearthing a key in a hidden drawer panel that unlocks that door that's been driving you nuts. Or trying to hack into a computer with a secret password you decoded from solving a series of brainteasers. Or triggering concealed switches to reveal a whole new room of puzzles. All in the name of trying to solve a murder mystery, prevent a nuclear meltdown, or restore the balance of the universe. You get the idea.
In an escape room, anything goes.
Over the last few years, these immersive game setups have popped up all over Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs. The first one opened in 2014. They've become wildly popular — we visited nine of them on weekend nights, and every one was fully booked.
Once you arrive at an escape room, a game master introduces you to the story line you'll be playing and locks you into a themed room of puzzles. If you can solve them all in an hour or less, you successfully escape. If not, they let you out anyway, and you lose.
If you need to escape before the hour's over, there's always a way out — either a button to press, or a game master to release you.
Here's everything you need to know to pick your perfect escape room adventure:
Escape the 1980s
If you grew up loving The Goonies, Cabbage Patch dolls, and Prince, this is the escape room of your dreams. Escape the 1980s began in 2015 as a pop-up experience created by a group of artists and tech geeks known as Steel Owl, but it was so popular that they made it a permanent escape room early in 2016.
When you first arrive, you'll hang out in a lobby filled with '80s mementos, plus retro candy and soda you can purchase. Once your whole team gets there, the game master walks you through the rules. Completing certain tasks can earn you three extra minutes of game time. Your team captain can purchase hints by surrendering three minutes of game time. You communicate with the game master using a bright yellow walkie-talkie, stored in an appropriately '80s iridescent fanny pack.
Players have to pay attention to the music, because sometimes the songs contain hints. There are also no clocks in the escape room itself, forcing the team to focus on having fun instead of "winning."
"We really want to focus on the experience of the group," Sue Ragusa, the general manager, said. "We don't like to break their immersion, or have them focus on the time. We just want people to come in and have a good time."
It's easy to have a great time in this escape room, especially since the game masters hide coupons among the props for free beers and candy.
There are a lot of VHS tapes involved in the game play (so you'll want to make sure at least one person on your team still remembers how to work those things), plus funky costumes to wear. Props include an Atari game and a Lite-Brite. (Ragusa said she spends a lot of time scouring eBay when something needs to be replaced.) At some point, someone in your group will probably say, "I haven't done this in years!"
Even if you're a '90s kid, you'll find that you don't need to know too much about the '80s to escape. The story line of the escape room is also relatively linear, which makes it super friendly for those who are newbies.
Best for: First-timers, '80s aficionados, groups with kids.
Open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 10 to midnight Friday and Saturday, noon to 9 p.m. Sundays, $28 per player, ages 9 and up (select Family Game when booking), 1804 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-402-7036, steelowl.com
Founders Bradley Albright and Jim Grass had something very specific in mind when they founded Escape Entertainment, one of the newer escape rooms in town. They wanted to create an experience that was not only fun but also purposeful, to serve corporate groups. Their reception area is lofty and spacious, making it a good fit for company events.
"We consulted Broadway set designers, mathematicians, psychologists,and sociologists," Grass said. "We differentiate ourselves with puzzles that are a little more cerebral."
Escape Entertainment currently offers three rooms — a Prohibition game, a time-warp game that somehow involves Benjamin Franklin, and a Philadelphia Zoo-inspired monkey-rescue game.
In the Prohibition game that my team visited, the solution to many of the puzzles were not immediately obvious, and we struggled on more than a few brainteasers. Even the clues that our game master gave us took us a while to figure out.
The puzzles were definitely not technology-driven — expect to write things down as you move around the room. If your group is brainy, you'll likely have fun here, but it's probably not the best pick for a family outing or a post-drinks activity.
Best for: Groups of coworkers, logic nerds
10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, $29 per player, ages 10 and up, 1218 Chestnut St., 215-923-1659, phl.escape-entertainment.com
The Franklin Institute
Last June, the Franklin Institute joined the Philly escape room scene with two rooms of its own designed by Steel Owl Productions. Right now they are offering an intergalactic adventure and an island-themed game.
Larry Dubinski, the president and CEO of the institute, called its escape rooms the most technologically advanced in the city — and my team's busy, sometimes confusing hour in the intergalactic escape backed that up. There were videos to watch, computers that demanded passwords through beeps and blinking lights, and interactive electronic bracelets.
Each player is assigned a role by the game master (including captain and therapist), which was a unique twist among the Philly escape rooms but not super necessary, in my opinion. Even though there was a lot of technology, the mission itself was pretty straightforward, making it kid-friendly.
The only downside? With so many electronics in the game, stuff can malfunction. It's not easy staying focused when your game master has to troubleshoot the tech more than a few times during the hour.
Best for: People who love lots of technology
3 to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, $28 per player, ages 10 and up, 222 N. 20th St., 215-448-0900, fi.edu
Escape the Room Philly
Escape the Room Philly opened in 2014 as an offshoot of the company's New York City location. The venue currently offers three games in four rooms, including an Indiana Jones-themed quest and a spy mission.
The newest room is Three Mile Island, based on the 1979 nuclear disaster near Harrisburg. Teams have to complete a series of mini puzzles to find what they need to escape from the plant before it melts down.
"With Three Mile Island, we really wanted to create an experience that generated a little more panic and egg people on a bit," said Daniel Park, the manager of the Philadelphia location. "We took a few more artistic liberties with this one."
Located in an old bank vault, Three Mile Island is a convincing nuclear bunker, which means that claustrophobic people should probably avoid this one. (You can leave the bunker whenever you want by pressing an emergency exit button.)
The story line is less linear than at other Philly escape rooms, so big groups can split up into smaller ones to complete certain tasks. Hints are doled out via small television screens.
If you can keep it together under flashing lights and malfunctioning computers, you might just be able to make it out. Just don't expect it to be easy: Escape the Room Philly likes to keep escape rates for its games around 20 percent.
Best for: Larger groups who want to split up into teams and compete against each other
3 to 10 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 2 to 11:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday, $30 per player, all ages, 1528 Walnut St., 267-603-4355, escapetheroomphilly.com
Mission Escape Games
Mission Escape Games opened last October, making it one of the newer rooms in town. The current offering is a Victorian-era game, Escape the Hydeout, inspired by The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
The Hydeout had the most convincing set design of any escape room we visited, designed by artists who had worked with Disney and Universal Studios. "We didn't want to just have a bunch of combination locks and padlocks lying around," said owner Jose Sun. "A great escape room needs to have that wow factor."
Eerie music and thunderstorm sound effects played throughout the hour, and the flickering of the chandelier overhead did a decent job of making my team feel like we were invested in the story line as we searched the cabinets for keys and unscrambled clues.
The game was also well-balanced; we never felt like we were too confused, but there were still moments when we had to ask for hints.
Best for: Players looking for an immersive experience
3 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, noon to 10:30 p.m. Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday, $28 per player, ages 12 and up, 707 Chestnut St., 267-819-2618, philly.missionescapegames.com
Philadelphia Room Escape
Philadelphia Room Escape offers two games: an Alcatraz prison break and a Caribbean ghost ship adventure. The rooms are smaller and simpler than many of the other rooms in Philly, and there is noticeably less technology here.
In the Caribbean ghost ship room, clues and items are traded between the players and the game master through a drawer. While that's an original idea, the proximity to the game master made it difficult to become absorbed in the game. Items and clues also feel much less significant when they are delivered to you this way instead of hidden for your team to find.
Many of the puzzles wound up being wordy riddles, which meant that my team spent many minutes huddled over scraps of paper, reading and rereading for a solution.
This room isn't the best pick for groups with small children or short attention spans, but purists might find themselves enjoying the break from high-tech escape room elements.
Best for: People who like solving riddles
Open for bookings Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, $30 per player, ages 13 and up, 1520 Sansom St., 267-702-3098, roomescapephilly.com
Vered Bakshtein, the owner of MindEscape, became fascinated with escape rooms after she played one in Israel. But when she came to Philadelphia and checked out the existing escape rooms, she felt like they were missing certain elements. Soon after, Bakshtein began brainstorming puzzles for her own room, which opened in Society Hill last April.
MindEscape currently offers a Thai prison-themed room and, new this month, a Jack the Ripper room.
The puzzles in the Thai prison room my team visited are mostly physical tasks — assembling items, for instance — instead of word-based riddles. "When I designed the room, I knew I wanted to make the puzzles doable for people who don't know English, because English isn't my first language," Bakshtein said. "I also really wanted to get people to communicate in there."
She wasn't kidding: to escape, we had to pool observations and think cooperatively as a team in ways that none of the other escape rooms we tried demanded of us.
Weary of keys, ciphers, and locked boxes inside of locked boxes, my team of escape room veterans found MindEscape's creative puzzles exciting, challenging, and refreshingly well-motivated. Rather than flipping over furniture for random clues, Thai prison will have you asking your team, "I see what our next goal is, now how can we make that happen with these seemingly useless items?"
Our minds were focused on escape for the entire hour (really only 54 minutes, but who's counting?), a rare and much appreciated departure from the usual experience of getting so lost in the web of mini-puzzles that it's actually surprising when the final door swings open. We weren't the only fans — Bakshtein said Carson Wentz stopped by recently with his fianceé and gave the room his stamp of approval.
Now that we've escaped, we can't wait to go back: My team is already planning to try "Jack the Ripper."
Best for: Anyone who likes escape rooms, non-English speaking groups
6 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 6 p.m. to midnight Friday, noon to midnight Saturday, noon to 10 p.m. Sunday, $30 per player, ages 8 and up, 521 S. 4th St., 215-454-6159, mindescaperoom.com
Amazing Escape Rooms
Amazing Escape Rooms is a large national escape chain with Philly locations in Center City and East Falls.
The East Falls location is a zombie game where players are locked into a room with a zombie and must escape before it catches them. If it's not your cup of tea to have another human chasing you around a room you can't get out of, stick with the Center City location, which is the one we visited.
That venue offers three rooms: a 1970s game, an international spy mission, and an art gallery escape. Game masters communicate with players via small television screens, and each team starts out with three free clues. (Your team can earn extra clues by liking the company's Facebook page.) Any clues you request after the three free ones have to be "purchased" with silly dances or songs performed during the game.
Amazing Escape Rooms' games are designed by a Russian company, and the outsourced puzzles seemed less engaging to me than the ones at the other escape rooms we visited. Our team tried the art gallery-themed room, which fed us predictable escape room fare from start to finish.
There were tons of locks in this room, so whenever my team members found a code, we had to try it on a handful of locks before getting the next clue. Often, that clue wound up being a combination to another lock. When you're being bounced from lock to lock, the game quickly loses its excitement, and it's easy to zone out.
Best for: Tipsy people who don't want to do a lot of thinking but can still use a key
10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 9 to 1:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Sunday, $28 per player, ages 7 and up, 101 N. 15th St., 215-608-8110, amazingescaperoom.com
Liberty Escape Rooms
Liberty Escape Rooms is a locally owned company with locations in Old City and Ocean City, N.J. My team visited Old City, where they offer two history-centric rooms: one about the Liberty Bell's role in the American Revolution and one set in a World War II bunker. The Ocean City location currently offers an alien-themed game and a nautical adventure, along with a 30-minute version of the World War II game.
"A lot of history buffs respond really well to the classic puzzles in this room," manager Anthony Fernandez said. "But we also wanted to be an approachable, family-friendly escape room, so even little kids can enjoy themselves."
Liberty Escape Rooms also allows players to ask for an unlimited number of clues, so it's very difficult to "lose." (Perfect if you don't want to deal with grumpy kids afterward.) The eye for detail here was visible in the props — one lock I struggled with during the game turned out to be antique.
This escape room's historic flair and straightforward setup make it perfect for adventurous families, and for tourists looking for a fun dose of Philly history.
Best for: History buffs and tourists, families with kids